Table for One

I often eat lunch alone. I’ve have been married to the same person for over forty years and we eat together every night. But whether I’m at work or at home in the middle of the day, I’m likely to eat alone. I never thought it was odd to eat by myself in a restaurant at lunch. Certainly there were plenty of other solo diners around me. It seems like an effective way to eat and get back to work.

Eating with another person has its place: more elaborate preparations, more time spent together, good conversation, no diversions from media, and ultimately more to clean up. Eating alone also had its place: a shorter time from start to finish, a relaxing silence where one can focus on the food, an embrace of the diversions offered by media, and a quick clean up. Eating in company is work. Eating alone is less work. Both can be enjoyable.

I was reminded of these facts while reading a recent post from Eric Kim, a senior editor at the Food 52 website. His article, This Solo Dining Trend is Changing the Way People Eat, highlights a growing food movement in South Korea, honbap, that emphasizes eating alone in public. Public dining has generally been the domain of pairs or groups of eaters. Solo eaters often feel exposed and perhaps even stigmatized. The honbap movement aims to make solo dining a positive experience. It has influenced both diners’ behaviors, menus and restaurant design. In the U.S., this is a practice that always had followers, whether of necessity or by choice. One could argue that the restaurant bar affords a “table for one” without a reservation, and without judgement. The bar menu has all the elements of single dining in both portion and price.

Some restaurants are already opening their dining rooms to singles, recognizing that sitting at the bar is not always convenient or comfortable. Serving a single customer, diligently and caringly, is still rare enough that doing so will almost certainly guarantee a return visit.

My interest with this trend was sparked by another point in Kim’s post. An important influence on Korean social media, and former K-Pop Girls Generation singer, Tiffany Young, has embraced and popularized honbap. She did so by posting a video of eating ramen by herself on YouTube. In that post she outlines a series of increasingly challenging honbap situations, urging others to follow her lead in eating alone in public places that are considered less welcoming to solo diners. Here is her list:

  1. Eating kimbap or ramen alone
  2. Eating at a cafeteria or food court alone
  3. Eating at a fast food restaurant alone
  4. Eating at a cafe alone
  5. Eating at a Chinese or naengmyeon restaurant alone
  6. Eating at a popular date-night restaurant alone
  7. Eating at a family restaurant alone
  8. Eating at a Korean BBQ restaurant alone
  9. Drinking alone at a bar

Kim points out that many of these situations are Korean specific, but it doesnt take much effort to insert the U.S. equivalent of a naengmyeon (pizza instead of noodles) or a Korean BBQ (fine dining). Similarly, Americans may be more comfortable drinking alone at a bar. We should reorder Young’s levels as well, switching 1 and 3 perhaps, or 6 and 7. An American list, then, for climbing the ladder of solo dining might look like this:

  1. Eating from a food truck alone
  2. Eating in a fast food restaurant alone
  3. Eating in a cafeteria or food court alone
  4. Eating in a coffee house or cafe alone
  5. Drinking alone at a bar
  6. Eating in an ethnic restaurant alone
  7. Eating in a family restaurant alone
  8. Eating in white table cloth restaurant alone
  9. Eating at a popular date-night restaurant alone
  10. Eating at a high-end, fine dining restaurant alone

I don’t know what prize you would win if you actually accomplished these ten solo dining experiences. Maybe it would only be the satisfaction of knowing that you successfully participated in this new food movement. Or, maybe you would discover an approach to tasting food that was more mindful. Andrea Camilleri’s popular detective hero, Commissario Montalbano, always insists on eating alone, or if that is unavoidable, at least eating in silence. It remains to be seen if this food practice will take hold among American diners.

For the Love of It

Wayne Booth (1921-2005) was a long-serving professor of English Literature at the University of Chicago, and through his landmark work, The Rhetoric of Fiction, he helped establish the basis for rhetorical literary criticism. He wrote many other books, but my favorite is For the Love of It: Amateuring & Its Rivals (University of Chicago Press, 1999). This is the book I am most likely to give as a graduation present. It speaks to me like no other book I’ve ever encountered. To understand why, I have to reveal a bit about myself. I am truly happy when I am engaged in learning something new. This had been a truth about me ever since I was a child. As a result, I have had many interests over the years. I once made a list of my various engagements ( my wife calls them, not altogether inaccurately, “obsessions”) for my daughter a few years ago. It was over a page and half long, single spaced! There were probably many more that I explored, but that failed to grab my attention. Once I am fully committed to a project, I will follow it through for anywhere from three to five years. Then, it is time to look for the next new thing. I even picked a profession that is so broad I can focus on many different topics in depth, and still be within the mainstream of the discipline. I have one life-long passion, cooking and baking, and even here my interests wax and wane across the world’s cuisines and various cooking techniques over time, as evidenced by the bookshelves groaning with cookbooks bought in the pre-internet days. My projects have involved book learning, sport and fitness, listening to different forms of music, crafting, and writing. You might say I am accommodating to an attention deficit condition, as I flit from project to project. You might ask what I have to show for all this manic learning? Could all that energy and drive not have been focused on becoming a true expert in at least one of these interests? When guest remark on the quality of the food I serve by suggesting I should open a restaurant, I am truly perplexed. Why would I do that? It would take all the fun out of cooking.

Into this storm of self doubt, Wayne Booth provides me with both the apology and the direction for my manias: the importance of doing something for love, rather than gain. As he tells it, he had the good fortune to marry a woman who was a professional violinist. From time to time, handsome young men would appear at their front door with instrument cases under their arms, and whisk his wife away to an evening of quartet or ensemble playing.  So, to have an excuse to tag along, he took up the cello at the age of 31. No one takes up the cello at that age! The fingers will never be nimble enough. No matter how much you practice, you can not compete professionally with people who began playing the instrument as children. He persisted initially because he wanted to fully participate in the life his wife was leading. But soon he was playing for the love of it. He discovered fellow students, teachers, workshops, summer camps, and performance opportunities that were geared to adult musicians with his skill level. Pursuing his instrument ushered him into situations that he characterises as among the most meaningful individual experiences of his life.

But why do this?  Booth says that if anything is worth doing (emphasis on the ‘worth’), it is worth doing badly! It’s not an original quote. That just means he was not the first to try to describe the value-added of amateuring: joyful friendship, ecstatic transport beyond oneself, and gratitude for life’s unearned gifts! If that strikes you somewhat overwrought, then you don’t know what you are missing!

Amateuring is the antidote to a neoliberal work ethic, a world that demands that we pursue gain, that we plan our time to best advantage, that we develop our acquaintances strategically, and that we practice the nimble arts of opportunity seizing.  Amateuring accomplishes none of these. It is useless. That is its greatest virtue. It has nothing to do with killing time or escaping from boredom. Because it often involves rigorous, demanding technique that can never be completely mastered, the pursuit of the thing suspends the linear flow of time. Playing the instrument, painting the canvas, knitting the sweater,  constructing the dish take us nowhere. We are materially no better off than when we started. In fact, it may even have cost us money.

In the spirit of this season of graduation speeches, I recommend the possibilities of amateuring as a life goal to young people. Even if they flit from activity to activity, as I did, as long as they are moving forward in the pursuit of the ‘useless,’ they will be happier people.

Buffet Dreams

Sometimes you have to leave home to get a perspective on the things you take for granted. For anyone who travels, the hotel breakfast buffet can be an oasis of culinary inspiration, and at other times a scared landscape of desolation. I’m writing this from the table of a Hilton Hotel in Philadelphia with an outstanding buffet in the American style. There is very little innovation here (with the exception of slices of smoked salmon by the yogurt and cereal selections), but the quality is consistently high. Yes, I sampled everything. It’s my responsibility to you, dear reader. You expect nothing less.

The more common breakfast buffet experience is about as pleasant as hospital food. I wouldn’t be surprised if it all didn’t come from the same food service supplier: stale cereal, doughy waffles, cheap breads and rolls, tasteless pastries, rubber eggs, sausages that taste more line spicy candy bars than pork, bacon so thin it crumbles as you try to put it in your plate, watery juices, and brownish water for coffee. In contrast, today’s breakfast had eggs scrambled from something that came in a shell, rather than a paper carton, sausages that a butcher would be proud to call her own, thick, hot, steel-cut oatmeal, really ripe melon, berries and pineapple chunks, fresh breads and pastries that looked like a human had actually made them. Did I mention the smoked salmon? Some of you will remember my post on a breakfast in a hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a few years ago. I’m sorry to say that Philadelphia is too far south on the Atlantic coast for its guests to expect a pot of baked beans in their breakfast buffet. And too far north for them to feast on grits or biscuits and gravy. The lack of a regional identity to the offerings can be forgiven as long as the quality of the usual and customary fare is high, and it was superb.

But we can go even further. The mother of all breakfast buffets is one I encountered in Berlin. It happens to be at the Crown Plaza off Kurfürstendam, the center of the city’s commercial district. This hotel caters to travelers from all over the world. So, it’s breakfast buffet, which is included in the price of the room (a European practice that I wish American hotels would adopt), is the most diverse I have even seen. For travelers from the Atlantic Coast and the, British Isles, there was chocolate ( yeah, that’s a breakfast thing in Holland), kippers, bangers, streaky bacon, mushrooms, and grilled tomatoes. For those from Scandinavia, several kinds of herring, pickles and rye flat breads. For visitors from Eastern Europe and Russian, there were mayonnaise salads, sourdough rye breads and fine salumi. For France, they provided a great baguette and perfectly ripe, white-rind cheeses. But wait! That’s not all. For guests from the Middle East, they offer numerous spreads and salads with fresh pita. Those who have traveled from China and Southeast Asia have a choice of two soups, as well as rice porridge with several savory add-ins. For Japanese diners, there is fragrant steamed rice with natto. They offered perfectly cooked soft boiled eggs in the shell and freshly scrambled eggs in a warmer. A cook in a starched white tunic stood ready to take any egg order you wanted, from poached to omelets of any combination. The coffee was available as a drip brew or as an espresso. A barista stood nearby to assist you in preparing your café au lait with whatever dairy or non-dairy “milk” you prefer. The tea selection was superb. There were red, oolong, and green brews prepared at the perfect temperature. Or you could order a fresh pot from the barista. The juices were all fresh pressed. The fruit selection was seasonally appropriate and carefully prepared. The pastries were hand-made viennoise. The tea cakes were of the drier, intensely flavored variety preferred by Central Europeans. The croissants were so fresh that they shattered into an explosion of flakes. We had four nights in this hotel and four breakfasts. We never ate the same breakfast twice.

What message was this buffet sending to the guests? “You are welcome here” might be an obvious answer, but it isn’t the only one. “We are a distinctive and discriminating establishment that knows the world and the diversity of its breakfasts” is another one. After all this hotel is located in that part of Berlin that has always been considered a showplace of consumption, from the Kaufhaus des Westens diagonally across the street the Europa Center one block away. But there are more. “Guests at our hotel are comfortable with diversity and enthusiastic about sampling breakfast items from around the world, including those of your home country.” And finally, “We invite you to travel a little further and experience the breakfasts of another land at our sumptuous buffet.” Can you imagine such messages being conveyed at the breakfasts of the highway hotels in the Untied States? Or even the more stately city hotels, like the one I am currently staying in? This strikes me as just one more sign that the current jingoism in pubic forum in the U.S. was predetermined in the breakfast offerings of the nation’s hotels. Breakfast is destiny!

Food Chimeras

A chimera (kí-mer-ah) is a fantastic three-in-one beast first described by Homer in the Iliad. It had the head and body of a lioness, the tail of a serpent and emerging from the lion’s back, the neck and head of a goat that breathed fire! Over time the chimera has been taken up by other cultures influenced by the Greeks. The combination of features and qualities would change to meet local sensibilities. In Medieval Europe, chimera icons were often incorporated in illuminated manuscripts to depict the raw forces of nature, as well as hypocrisy and fraud. Chimeras were satanic creatures. They have remained popular in fantasy literature, film and television today and are featured in many video games. I’ve never come across a chimera in contemporary arts who was an ally. They are mostly creatures one needs to destroy. Chimeras are very much a meme of the moment.
Chimeras are metaphors, the most popular and productive way of developing new meanings in language. The recipe is simple. You take two (or more) things that are very different from each other and then speak of them as if they were the same thing. “All the worlds a stage” combines the ‘world’ with the image of a theatrical performance. But the world is not really a stage; it’s a world. It is only a stage in speech. Both the world and stage are next to each, but the actual connection between them is called juxtaposition, side-by-side as if their edges were touching (Can words have edges? another metaphor!). Metaphors exist in all modes of communication: speech is the most common (Homer’s description of the chimera), but also visual modes (a mosaic or a statue of a chimera), auditory modes (a recording of lion roars, goat bleats and serpent hisses, simultaneously), olfactory (imagine the smells of those animals combined), and haptic (a menacing presence which suggests a chimera through shadows and flashes of recognition). To transmute a metaphor is to take it from one mode to another: from a literary description to a mosaic to a statue, to a sound recording or song, to a (noxious) perfume to a special effect in movie or video game, while still retaining the qualities that give meaning to the original metaphor. It should not surprise us that the underlying logic of the chimera will proliferate in popular culture. Like all metaphors, it offers a fertile ground for the imagination.
My list of modes in which chimeras may dwell has omitted one important mode. Up until recently, I did not find much evidence of the chimera in the taste of food. Obviously no one is going to sit down to a burger that combines lion, goat and snake! But such a literal interpretation of the chimera misses the qualities that make the gustatory mode of communication work. Metaphors in this mode push our tastes to the limit and ask us to imagine the possibilities of tastes that have never existed before, just as Homer’s chimera was a beast that had never existed before, a singularity. Creating a new taste would be a truer transmutation of the chimera into the realm of foods.
I’ve been thinking about chimera foods lately based on several experiences I’ve had while living in Vienna this autumn. The first is the street food called Currywurst and the second is the bakery curiosity known as the Laugencroissant, or Laugenkipferl. These are both chimeras, even though neither of them contains any lion, goat or snake.

The story goes that Currywurst originated in Berlin in 1949 when an sausage stand owner named Herta Heuwer was given some Worcestershire sauce and curry powder by occupying British troops. She mixed them with tomato paste as a substitute for the hard to obtain ketchup that was a regular condiment for pork sausage that she sold at her kiosk. (Slackman, Michael, “National Dish Comes Wrapped in Foreign Flavoring”. The New York Times Jan. 26, 2011). This is the stuff of myth. That is not how such things originate. It is more likely that several snack food owners had been experimenting with alternatives for ketchup during the war years and that the curry ketchup now served with pork sausage was the outcome of this collective experimentation (Petra Foede, Wie Bismarck auf den Hering kam. Kulinarische Legenden. Kein & Aber, Zürich 2009; ISBN 978-3-0369-5268-0). This way of serving sausage has spread throughout the sausage stands of the German-speaking world.  I did not have chance to eat Currywurst when I was in Berlin, but I did eat it in Vienna. The server took an ordinary bratwurst, a pork sausage similar to an mild Italian salsiccia (N.B. this is not the same as what is called bratwurst in North America). He cut sausage into pieces on its paper plate, dusted it with a bright yellow curry powder. He then picked up a plastic squeeze bottle containing a think brown sauce and squirted this all over the sausage.


That sauce tasted more like a sweet mango chutney than a tomato ketchup,

but ketchup is itself within the family of chutneys. Kecap/ketjap refers to any fermented sauce in Indonesia, which is where the flavor profile of modern ketchup originated. Sweet chutneys have the same flavor profile, but add vegetables or fruits that are salt-pickled before being cooked in the spices.  The stuff served with Currywurst isn’t really a tomato ketchup with curry powder, although in supermarkets I have seen bottles of curry ketchup that are little more than that, and tomato paste continues to be an ingredient in curry ketchups. The street version is an entirely new approach to ketchup: sweeter, and sourer at the same time, with fruit accents in the aroma and the taste. In fact, the only quality that is similar to tomato ketchup is the consistency. The sprinkling curry powder was almost tasteless. It had none of the acidic bite of the cumin and powdered cayenne in most well made powders. One could imagine a full-bore Indian curry with sausage as the focal ingredient. But Currywurst would not be that dish. In Berlin, though not in Vienna, the Currywurst is often served with French fried potatoes. That suggests to me that the sauce is actually the taste appeal of the dish. Currywurst is a chimera. It juxtaposes three classes of food, sausage, potatoes and a curry ketchup to produce a taste where the elements remain separate, but still combine.

The second chimera food I encountered is the Laugenkipferl.


This is a cross between a croissant (Kipferl in German) and a pretzel. Just to add an exclamation point to the beast, the baker will sprinkle some sesame seeds or course salt grains on the top.  “Wait,” you say, “those are two completely different textures! how can you combine them?” You got it in one! That combination of textures is what makes this a chimera. The secret to a pretzel’s texture is that the dough is briefly boiled in a solution of sodium carbonate (washing soda, soda ash). This salt is used to regulate acidity, keep powders from caking in high humidity, and when mixed with mild acids will produce carbon dioxide gas and  cause a dough to rise.  It is one of the components of the alkaline salts used to give raman noodles their characteristic flavor and texture. In China, it is used in the crust of traditional Cantonese moon cakes, and in many other Chinese steamed buns and noodles. It is also used in the production of the sherbet ice cream. When we eat sherbet the heat of our mouths causes a chemical reaction between the sodium carbonate and citric acid in the flavoring that releases carbon dioxide gas and gives us the cooling and fizzing sensation associated with sherbet.  But back to the Laugenkipferl. After boiling, the pretzel dough is then baked. The heat of the oven causes a very strong Mailliard reaction on the surface of the pretzel resulting in the characteristic brown color. Small amounts of sodium carbonate on the surface also result in a distinctive “drying” sensation when we eat a pretzel.

A croissant, as readers of this blog know, is my favorite breakfast food. It is made from yeasted, puff pastry. This in itself is a delicate balance of forces. Puff pastry has tons of butter in it. The butter and yeasted dough are folded and rolled many times to create thin, alternating layers of butter and dough.  Yeast and butter do not get along very well. To make them work together takes patience and skill. The dough must be allowed to rise after rolling and shaping until it has doubled. The croissant is a stunning achievement of the baking arts. To this balancing act, the inventors of the Laugenkipferl take the risen dough and throw it in boiling solution of sodium carbonate. Then they bake it. The yeast continue to grow and produce gas (carbon dioxide and water vapor) that is trapped between the butter layers of the dough, causing the pastry to rise dramatically and produce the swirling diaphanous interior crumb and bicolor segments on the outside.  The result is a juxtaposition of textures: pretzel on the outside, croissant on the inside.



Dominique Ansel, the New York pastry chef, invented the cronut a few yeas back. That is a croissant/donut chimera. Croissant is arguably a pastry that lends itself to combining with other textures. With the Laugenkipferl we have a combination that is regionally meaningful: love of pretzels plus love of croissants equals love of Laugenkipferl. And they are not just for breakfast anymore. The bakeries will sell them to you stuffed with ham and lettuce.  This could give bánh mì shops (Vietnamese sandwich shops that fill mini-baguettes with Southeast Asian ingredients) a run for their money. Consider: a Laugenkipferl stuffed with Currywurst!  That’s a chimera worthy of Homer.  



Mushrooms in Prague

I have always been fascinated with the persistence of old practices of eating in cities. We are so accustomed to thinking about urban provisions as something that happens in marketplaces and supermarkets that we rarely notice the households that continue to bake, pickle, can, and smoke their own food products. Even older than these practices are those city dwellers who gather their foods, seasonally, from urban spaces most of us would never think of as sources of edibles.

Back in those romantic days of Counter Culture communes (1965-75), there was an anthropologist (Hawaii 1948) and author of handbooks for gathering wild foods in North America named Ewell Gibbons.

Wild Food Adventures

Euell Gibbons

In a series of books, Stalking the Wild Asparagus; Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop; Beachcombers Handbook; and Staling the Good Life, he advocated eating nutritious but neglected wild plants, like lambs quarters, rose hips, young dandelion leaves, stinging nettles, cattails, purslane and amaranth. Some of these have become popular enough to be sold at food stores (rose hips, dandelion leaves, and amaranth seeds) or farmer’s markets (purslane and amaranth leaves), but others still must be gathered in the wild. I would love to find a box of fresh lambs quarters in the lettuce section of the food stores I frequent. They are here in Vienna. What a delicate, sweet green they are! They are served here as a topping for vinegary potato salad or combined with other lettuces in a “leaf salad.’ A foodie friend of mine in Chicago in the 1990s told me he picked lambs quarters in his yard!. But his yard had never been chemically fertilized and was mostly weeds anyway. So what treasures he found there rarely surprised me. Still I doubt he got enough for a salad.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, while visiting relatives in Prague. Tom, my second cousin-in-law  (Is that a thing?) is an avid mushroom hunter. One Saturday morning, after playing his usual round of tennis down the street, he walked to his secret places in the forested, river ravine preserve in front of his house (He swears he’ll go to his grave without revealing where it is. Except his son knows exactly where tit is, of course. Ah, kinship!), returning home about an hour later with a basket full of fresh-picked, wild mushrooms. I couldn’t identify most of them, but I accepted that they were perfectly edible. After all, Tom had been picking and eating wild mushrooms since he was a boy and he’s my age (i.e. OLD). His wife, Maryla, never flinched. She had been eating whatever he brought home for all the forty-odd years of their marriage. For supper, she made a simple scramble of chopped, sautéed mushrooms and eggs. No herbs, no fancy oils, just salt and black pepper. It wasn’t a pretty dish. Maryla did not scrape off any black gills, as I might, before she chopped the mushrooms. The resulting scramble had a grayish tint. But it was delicious.

Most Europeans today are still deeply enmeshed in the seasonal round of uncultivated foods,even though many of the wild foods have begun to be cultivated to meet the demand. These include fiddle ferns and ramps in the spring, wild strawberries through the early summer, wild mushrooms in the late summer, chestnuts and venison in the late fall. The positive feelings toward seasonality, namely, that “We can eat them now, so let’s do that, because soon the best tasting ones will be gone and we’ll not taste them until next year,” are reflected in agricultural produce as well. Asparagus, cultivated strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers, gooseberries and currents in high summer, hazelnuts in late summer, wine, lambs and suckling pigs in Spring, ducks and geese in late autumn,  All have the reputation for at least having their finest, most refined taste only at certain times of the year. At other times, it is a compromise to eat them. Many choose to forgo such off-season produce in favor of other options. This is really different from the attitude of most city-dwelling North American foodies. I can’t speak for rural dwelling folks there, although hunting in general is a well-know part of how small-town folk in North America represent themselves. But in the cities, the recipe rules. And if the recipe says fresh strawberries, then regardless of whether they have any taste or not, fresh strawberries, flown in from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, are purchased and ‘enjoyed.’

Mushroom Venor at a Farmer's Market in the Technical University, PragueIf your European household is not blessed with someone who has a secret forest full of wild mushrooms, all is not lost. All the markets have mushrooms in season. Here is a stand at a farmer’s market that is held every Saturday on the campus of the Technical University, down the street from Tom and Maryla’s house. As you can see, there are lots of healthy looking chanterelles (lower right) and porcini (center), as well as cultivated shiitake (upper right) and oyster (lower left). You can tell the porcini are wild because their edges have been nibbled by little furry forest animals. That’s the sign of authenticity!

Let’s face it, most of us city-dwelling foodies are not about to down a plate of pre-nibbled mushrooms. And that is precisely what eating Tom’s mushrooms brought to mind for me. The relationship between people in cities and those aspects of reality that they categorize as nature is an instrumental one. By that I mean that only those aspects of nature that can be controlled (infections and other pests), sanitized (foods and fibers), channeled (water and sewage), regulated (air temperature, velocity, and moisture), or camouflaged (marshlands, deserts, and scrub) are acceptable neighbors. All other ‘inhabitants’ of nature are unwelcome, and certainly to be avoided at all costs. I’ve written about this before with examples of what city engineers do with wild animals who invade neighborhoods (it’s not pretty), and extreme weather events, like hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. In such cases, our fears of a world out of balance can only be placated by feats of engineering and logistical marvels that return the status quo ante in a ridiculously short time. WE DECLARE THAT WE WILL NOT SUFFER AT THE HANDS OF NATURE! and if we are forced to do so, we will hold humans accountable for our pain.

I’m still working out the implications of this particular view of nature held by many urbanites, even if it is only spoken of when the going gets tough. I suspect it is only one of several views that are available depending on the context. Like I said, it’s still a work in progress. Watch this space.

Men Playing Dress up

I have always liked wearing uniforms. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, High School Band were attractive to me for lots of other reasons, but the best part was dressing up to meet with your co-ornati. Yes, the Latin word for uniform is ornatus, the same root as ornament and ornate. I was of a member a fraternity in high school where we decked ourselves out in tuxedos, capes and swords! So, you can see where I’m coming from with uniforms.

Takay, Dec 2001/Jan 2002,

Takay, Dec 2001/Jan 2002,

The more time I spend in Vienna, Austria, the city that has been the site of my ethnographic research for over forty years, the more I find points of connection between my costume-love and the clothing priorities of the people who have deeper roots in this place. Paintings of ‘turn of the (20th) century’ Vienna portray men taking every opportunity they had to wear uniforms. There were hundreds of possibilities: every military regiment had their own colors and regalia. Some of the hats alone were two feet high! The university had a uniform for everyday wear, apart from the gowns worn at graduation and such cermonies. Doctors had a uniform. Lawyers had a uniform. Officials of the government wore uniforms. Tram conductors were very proud of their uniforms.. Housemaids  wore uniforms that have since become Halloween cliches. The various ministers and members of religious orders each had their own, some of which were just as elaborate as the military uniforms. The different guilds had their uniforms. You could tell a carpenter from a butcher by what they wore when they were not working. Bankers all wore the same clothes, just like today. And there were social class uniforms too. And today, we find various uniforms in and around hospitals, military installations, stations for first responders, clubs for post-punk musicians, and sports events, to name only the most obvious.

At a theater last week, I came across a room full of men wearing uniforms. The women were more individual. It was much harder to discern common patterns. I’m sure someone who is more knowledgeable  of women’s fashions could have written a good analysis of them, but I’m too ignorant to do so. With the men, however, the elements of the uniform were clearer. Some of them, like the fellow in this picture, seemed to have stepped right out of a painting of a charity ball from 1900!

Photo: R. Rotenberg, 2017

Photo: R. Rotenberg, 2017

This fellow is a master in the guild of miners. They have a technical school in Vienna.  One sees these uniforms on the street often. I find the brass buttons on the coal black gabardine cloth really beautiful. It’s is actually unlawful for me to wear one in public, but more about that in a minute.

The other uniforms were more subtle. There was the standard, middle class sport jacket with tie, the artsy sport jacket without tie, sweater with tie, and sweater without tie. But no one had fewer than two layers on their torso.

Fashion and Self-Fashioning: Clothing Regulation in Renaissance Italy,

Fashion and Self-Fashioning: Clothing Regulation in Renaissance Italy,

Who can and cannot wear what has a long history in this Europe. Sumptuary Laws, as they are called, originated back in the day (late 13th century) when laws that reinforced religious morality were more common (I heard that snicker!). In particular, they helped people avoid the Christian sins of pride and greed. If you were punished for wearing garments that were too expensive for your level of earning, you had a good reason not to buy them.  Such laws are not exclusive to Europe. They existed in Ancient Greece, Rome, China, Tokugawa Japan,  and Medieval Islam. Most of the laws were directed at woman, both to limit ostentatious dress and to make it easier to identify prostitutes. Only they wore red dyed fabric in public.  The laws also made it possible to identify social rank and privilege. This made it easier to then discriminate against people of lower status than you. Uniforms were actually described in law for different occupations and statuses. That’s why the minor cannot wear my academic robes and I cannot wear his guild suit of ‘brass on black.’

These remnants of the sumptuary laws are a good example of what Bourdieu described as the internalised structures, dispositions, tendencies, habits, and ways of acting, that are both individualistic and yet typical of the social group, community, family, and historical position, while at the same time, an individual trace through this entire collective repertoire (1990).

Who is Ethical Hacker? | White Hat, Black Hat & Grey Hat Explained , YouTube

Who is Ethical Hacker? | White Hat, Black Hat & Grey Hat Explained , YouTube

So, this got me thinking what kinds of uniforms we might design for callings in life that were never imagined in the Classical and Medieval world. What might the uniform for computer hackers look like?  Which elements would be included and which specifically excluded? White hats and black hats, perhaps, but what style of hat? Baseball cap? Hipster fedora? Top Hat? Or,  member of the guild of direct mail soliciting for political candidates, polling, or charities. They are otherwise invisible and therefore, deserve a uniform.

Drawing of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones,

Or, anthropologists! When I was first starting in the discipline, the AAA meetings had an opening ceremony on Thursday night (they were only three days long up until the late 1970s). Everyone put on clothing from the place where they did their research. This was appropriation then and downright insulting now. That option is out. Nor is it feasible for every archaeologist to wear an Indiana Jones hat and carry a bullwhip, though I have known archaeologists who have tried to pull that off (not recently). It would also not be the right thing for all of us to don the white lab coat of the bioanthropologist. Only a small portion of them wear such things even in their labs.

So, I invite you to offer your own designs. What selection of ornati would you recommend to recognize each other and be recognized for our special knowledge of the world?

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity.


A Meditation on Tipping

Tipping is one of the everyday experiences of living in a new place that makes you immediately aware of being away from home. When at home, I understand food service workers, taxi drivers, package delivery people, hotel bellhops, and valet parking drivers to be among the more poorly paid workers. I tip to the maximal extent of the socially acceptable range. I don’t usually think too much about how that range comes about.

We need to start several thousand years ago to understand the moral basis of this outwardly simple exchange. The word ‘gratuity’ is the same as the word ‘grace’, ‘congratulations’,  and ‘charisma’, but also merci, grazie, and gracias! [1] They all derive from a word-root found in the southeast range of Indo-European languages, exemplified by the Sanskrit gir, a song or hymn of praise, but also of grace, or to give thanks. [2] These come into the northwestern languages through the Greek Χάρις (Charis), charity. Benveniste notes that this semantic heritage requires us to understand ‘gratuity’ not as a isolated grant or benefit, but as the locally-correct behavior governing relationship between kin, between strangers, between socially superior and inferior persons, and between dependent and independent persons.

Gratuities are given not in order to obtain an economic return but to give pleasure within the parameters of these relations. “Rounding up’ as the servers make change sees their task with almost no effort on the diners’ part. As such tips exist alongside ordinary exchanges, but operate from a different social logic: they calculate social position instead of value. We can exchange in many ways with other people: “pleasures, woes, secrets, marriageable children, insults, vengeance, hospitality, conversation, stories or songs, and above all gifts, but the economic justification for exchanges based on a calculation of value is subsidiary or lacking altogether.” [3]

Gratuities are double-edged. They can be used to honor or to shame, express sympathy or to make one feel needy. If the tip is too large or too small for the context, it can humiliate or incite anger. This is why we feel anxiety around tipping. If you get the amount wrong, even a small gift can have the unintended effects.

A gratuity in a restaurant or taxi is a paradox. It is a gesture that purports to be complete in itself. It only requires acceptance to active its goal, which is to establish a tie of mutual respect between the giver and receiver. Here is the paradox: that tie almost always ends as soon as the tip is received. It cannot be given with the intention of receiving anything in return since the service was already completed. The expectation of a future relationship between the parties is contingent on factors beyond the control of either. If a tip is given in expectation of future service, it abuses the notion of generosity. And if it is not given in the hope of some return favor, then the receiver could interpret it as a gesture of pity, an arrogant demonstration of the superiority of the giver.  This ambiguity could be resolved by the size of the tip. When does the receiver of a tip feel honored rather than humbled? When the size of the award exceeds expectations. Where do these expectations come from? The tips of other patrons. In this way, an auction of sorts ensues the end result of which is a growth in honorable tips from 5% to 10% to 15% to 20%, and in the future, farther still.

The tipping practices are not confined to their place of origin. People travel. The effect of Americans in Vienna is bizarre. Servers come to expect that those patrons identified as Americans, Canadians or Mexicans (primarily through their accent in English and/or their inability to communicate in German) will leave a 15-20% tip, “as is the custom in their country”. If they don’t, the servers feel ‘stiffed!’ Place of origin determines the rules of morality, a very Roman concept (natio) but one that is alive and well in Viennese tourist districts.


1. The English word ‘thank’ shares the same semantic space as these words, but derives from think and seemingly has nothing to do with gratuity, except in practice.

2. Benveniste, Emile. 1969. Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Vol. 1, Economie, parenté, société. Paris: Editions de Minuit. P. 199.

3. Pitt-Rivers, J. , 2011, The place of grace in anthropology. HAU 1(1). DOI:

The Viennese Brunch Bunch

While walking down a main street in Vienna at 11:15 AM this fine Saturday morning, I was struck by the crowd in the Josef Brot bakery. This is one of four artisan bakers left in city that once had an artisan bakery on every block! I wasn’t buying the $8, 1lb. loaf of handmade, organic bread, but I went inside anyway to see what they were offering. That’s when I notice a large, full dining room to the side of the bakery counter and a line of people waiting for tables.

BRUNCH! I wrote an article about Viennese mealtimes back in 1981 and brunch was not one of those mealtimes then. I wasn’t so much surprised to see people eating a meal at 11:00 AM on a Saturday as I was drawn to the sheer size of the crowd, and the number of people at the tables. It was Brooklyn-esque in it’s magnitude.



Just the previous day, I had the pleasure to read Adam Yuet Chau’s article on menues, Culinary Subjectification: The translated world of menus and orders. The premise of the article is intriguing: “How would one translate the word “menu” (i.e., restaurant menu) into the native languages of people without any experience of restaurants and menus? And how would you explain to them how ordering from the menu works? It quickly became clear that translating the word “menu” entails not only translating the world of restaurant-going and ordering from the menu but also our (i.e., ideal-typically Western) very conceptual and social world, which is another way to say that what seems to be a humble piece of paper listing a certain number of dishes is itself made by the world in which it is found and in turn contributes in a significant way to making that world.”

His conclusion is that a menu is a world defining artifact, a cosmo-menu that is “[m]ore than merely a piece of paper (or cardboard), the menu is at once a parole
(though the broader menu universe carries langue qualities), a cultural logic (or
menu-logic?), a sociocognitive tool, a generative and structuring principle, a narrative,
an organizational device (conceptual, taxonomic, as well as social), a civilizing machine, a conduit of (culinary) governmentality, an ideological vehicle (e.g.,
about choice, freedom, taste, culturedness, civility, cosmopolitanism, social class,
etc.), an ideological state apparatus in the Althusserian sense, a textographic fetish
or text act, and so on.” He explains all of these terms in the article for readers who are not cultural anthropologists. Suffice to say, you can read a lot of how people construct their realities from a restaurant menu!

A glance at the menu reveals both Viennese and international items. The first two items on the left are traditional Viennese coffeehouse breakfasts: Several pieces of bread and rolls with marmalade and butter and a soft-boiled egg.  The second adds some fresh white cheese and slices of ham to the plate with the bread and egg. The rest of the menu items are in English and should be familiar to anyone reading this blog. That is its parole, the way it speaks to us in a language we can understand. There is a logic to the arrangements of items, with breakfast items on the left and above the bold line, and more lunch-y items below. The bold line (a textographic fetish?) signals the menu’s iconographic power to ground memories and enact narratives (of breakfasts and lunches). The menu is ideological in that it permits us the freedom to choose from among the items the kitchen can produce. It then demands that we do so (or leave).  The items include both locally indexed dishes and cosmopolitan ones. The menu enacts class distinction by taking a coffeehouse standard and adding locavore adjectives, appealing to educated, aspirational customers.   All the civility of eating out is present: children locked into high chairs, multigenerational parties, public eating decorum (no throwing food, putting feet on table, public drunkenness, etc.).

What struck me as particularly important here was the menu as sociocognitive tool: The people who ordered from this menu, after having stood in line for the privilege of doing so, knew themselves to be people who would order from such a menu. Their identity as Viennese (there were no tourists here) was bound up with this act in ways that were not apparent to me before, having studied Viennese eating patterns since the mid-1970s. This was a new, desirable way of eating in public made possible by the menu. This is a new and a desirable way of being Viennese (the “Brunch Bunch’). Thank you for these tools, Adam Chau!


Refugees from that Other War

What does it mean to be the last on one’s generation? As the last remnants of the young Europeans who experienced World War II die, what becomes of those memories? We have the good luck to know one of these persons. Her name is Susanne Bock and she is 97 years old. Though physically frail, she has a sound mind and is still an active intellectual. In fact, she just published her third book.
We had a chance to talk about one of the major features of the war years for her today, her residence in England as a refugee from Austria. She showed us the exhibition catalogue prepared by the director of Verein Kunstplatzl named Sonja Frank, who had interviewed Susi. The exhibition was entitled Austrian Refugees in Britain: The Fight Against Fascism in World War II. It was mounted at The London School of Economics’ Atrium Gallery between November 16 and December 11, 2015.
The refugees who were fighting against fascism were all members of a progressive umbrella organization called the Free Austrian Movement (FAM). This organization provided help to refugees from Austria, coordinated the antifascist actions among its component groups, the support of Austrian fighting in the British army, and assisting the BBC in its propaganda programs aimed at Austrian audiences. The component groups included the entire spectrum of Austrian progressive political organizations, with the conscious exception of the Democratic Socialists, who officially embraced the unification of Austria with Germany.
The exhibition was an effort to capture the experiences of as many individual refugees as possible by interviewing them or their children, by collecting photographs and refugee documents, and by extracting contextual stories from period English and German-language publications. Each refugee that Frank could find information on was given their own entry, with biographical information, activities while in Britain, and photos. As one read through the entries, the commitment and antifascist fervor was evident in every entry. These were the active resistors whose country had been stolen from them, and who were determined to get it back. It is a very different refugee story, one that emphasizes agency rather than victimization.
Sonja was particularly interested in leafing through the catalogue since both her parents were part of this group. She found a short citation about her mother, who was active in the London group before meeting her father.
Susi pointed out that the people featured in the catalogue were primarily the ones located in and around London. There were two other concentrations of young Austrian refugees,, one in Oxford and one in Brighton. By the time Frank was conducting her research, none of the people active in those locations was alive to interview. Sonja’s father, who died in 1993, was living in Oxford and associated with the Czech refugee equivalent of the FAM, even though he was a native German speaker.
Our attention was drawn to Susi when she repeated her statement that Oxford and Brighton were ‘lost.’ This was important enough to her that she wanted to make sure we focused on that. The picture of FAM that we were discovering through the catalogue was an incomplete picture. It would always be incomplete. The research had come too late. Oxford and Brighton were forever lost.

The Taste of Wine

Do you find it pretentious when people use metaphorical language to describe the taste of wine and beer? I know that I’ve mocked that language myself: “Plumy with a hint of arrogance!” I’ve been thinking about the poverty of our language for tastes lately. Occasionally my wife and I will explore a new area of food and drink together. This summer, we’ve been exploring Rieslings, the white wine that has so many different guises it deserves serious study (or so I keep telling myself).  As we taste different vineyards and different styles, we try to describe the differences to each other. This is where I became aware of the poverty of our taste vocabulary. The thing is, it isn’t me, or her, or you. It’s our language.

Think about all the words that refer to colors and that do not depend on metaphors: white, black, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, brown, and pink, but also magenta, beige, vermilion, scarlet, indigo, umber, carmine, mauve, tan, cyan, russet, and rowan. Now try to a make of list of the words that describe tastes without reverting to words that really refer to something else, like fruits, meats, vegetables, or non-edibles. Once you get past sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory (umani), you’re done. It’s not only English that has this problem. There are no more words in any of the Indo-European, Finno-Altaic, Semitic-Nilotic or Sino-Tibetan derived languages that provide us with a richer set of choices than that. In contrast, color vocabulary varies considerably , depending on the technological complexity of the society the language supports, regardless of historical connections.

This is not a problem of taste being infinitely varied and therefore immune from easy categorization. Have you tried to count the number of colors in the color wheel of your computer lately? Many colors still depend on metaphor: kelly green, canary yellow, sky blue, etc.. The adoption of single-world descriptors for colors is an ongoing process.  While systematic efforts to provide a set of single-word taste terms date back at least to the third century B.C., when Aristotle listed sweet (indexed as the taste of honey), sour (lemons), bitter (fresh olives), salty (sea water), astringent (red wine), pungent (wood smoke), and harsh (distilled alcohol ) as basic qualities, the vast majority of such descriptors today remain metaphors of the “It tastes like. . . ” variety.

Currently you can find this list of single-word taste descriptor: acidic, acrid, appealing, appetizing, balsamic, biting, brackish, briny caustic, delectable, delicious, divine, dry, dulcet, flavorful, flavorsome, fruity, full-bodied, gamy, hot, juicy, luscious, lush, mellow, mouthwatering, palatable, peppery, pickled, piquant, pungent, rancid, rank, scrumptious, sharp, spicy, strong, succulent, sweet and sour, tangy, tart, tasteless, tasty, treacly, unsweetened, vinegary, yummy, and zesty (source: World Food and Wine). This is a fine list. There are not too many metaphors (brackish, briny, divine, fruity, lush, peppery,  spicy, treacly, etc), but one would like more specificity.

For example, a chili con carne can be spicy, but so can a Gewürztraminer wine. Clearly spicy means something different in each case. We need a taste vocabulary that helps us get closer to what we mean by spicy in both cases, not one that lumps different tastes together in a single category. A seriously stinky cheese, (technically, an aged, washed rind, semi-soft cheese like Münster, Raclette, or Limburger) presents another kind of problem. It is full-bodied, tasty, and lush, but also rank, gamy, and pungent. We need taste words that let us zero in on the unique qualities of foods that present such contrasting sense messages. Splitting tastes into too many categories weakens our description. People hear the word ‘rank’ or ‘stinky,’ and immediately turn off to the cheese, missing a delicious experience.

Right now, my wife and I are tasting what is clearly a delicious wine. It is different from the one we drank last night. How can we describe the differences? Why does it sound so pretentious to use metaphors? Is it because we are not supposed to pay that level of attention to the way things taste? Does doing so reveal a hedonism that is at odds with the Puritanical austerity of our national morality?

I’m tempted to make up a set of single-word tastes out of the metaphors commonly used for the tastes in white wine:  ‘crass’ = like berries,  ‘stonn’ = like stone fruits (apricots, peaches), ‘treed’ = like tree fruits (apple, pears), ‘vegge’ = like sautéed bitter greens (kale, spinach), ‘funnk’ = like compost or barnyard, or stinky cheese.   I am fond of the double consonants. I think they give these new taste words a certain ‘spritz.’